When The Conners arrives on ABC for its first season sans Roseanne this September, another more enduring working-class American family will return to our screens for its 30th season. And none of its cast members will have aged a day since their first appearance — least of all the baby.
The Simpsons premiered in December 1989, some 14 months after the original Roseanne. Unlike that elder sitcom, it has continued uninterrupted ever since, for 639 episodes. The main cast has stayed the same throughout. The animation has gone digital; the orchestra is still a real live one for every show.
At this point, Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie are simply part of the furniture of television. It’s hard to imagine them not being there. You have to be well over 30 to remember a time before its subversive-yet-family-friendly brand of humor changed the sitcom scene forever. (Stars who consciously modeled their own breakthrough comedy shows on it, as Ricky Gervais did with The Office and Edgar Wright did with Spaced, will never forget.)
Nothing — not more subversive animated upstarts like Family Guy, nor the insistence of Comic Book Guy-style snobs that it’s been declining in quality since Season 10, nor the Apu controversy, to which we’ll return — none of this seems to be able to drive a permanent stake through The Simpsons‘ heart.
For most of the last 10 years, around 8 million U.S. households have tuned in faithfully every Sunday, an astonishing achievement in an age of declining network viewership.
How did it happen, can it last another three decades, and what is the biggest threat to The Simpsons‘ continued existence? If the answers can be glimpsed anywhere, they’re in the breezy and surprisingly revealing Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons by Mike Reiss, in bookstores this month.
Reiss has been writing for the show on and off since Season 1. With Al Jean he became co-showrunner for Seasons 3 and 4, considered the finest by many of those Comic Book Guy-like fans. He left to launch that underrated 1990s animated sitcom The Critic, then returned to The Simpsons part time from Season 6 onwards.
He co-wrote The Simpsons Movie, alongside a passel of other animated fare that runs the gamut from the utterly vanilla Ice Age 3 to the web series that yielded a gay icon, Queer Duck.
All of which is to say that if The Simpsons has a comedic soul, Reiss is the closest thing to it. There’s a lot of his experience in the show’s DNA. Quite literally, in some cases. Remember the episode where Homer builds a terrifying clown bed frame for Bart? (“Can’t sleep, clowns will eat me!”) Reiss’ father did exactly that for him as a kid, and it looked almost as terrifying as the animated version.
Reiss knows that you don’t care all that much about his biography, however; he’s no Troy McClure. Most of the book is focused on answering every burning question you might ever have about how a Simpsons episode gets made. (The basic answer: painstakingly, over the course of a year from script to screen, with dozens of jokes left on the cutting room floor, some input even now from creator Matt Groening, and thankfully absolutely no input whatsoever from the suits at Fox).
Or how many of the show’s characters and recurring tropes got their start. (Groundskeeper Willie began as a two-line Hank Azaria accent ad-lib, and now the Scottish cities of Glasgow and Aberdeen are fighting over which town he was born in, since the show has named both.)
Oh, and revealing every easter egg. Because of course a show that does the most elaborate couch gag it can muster in the credits every week is stuffed with more easter eggs than you’ve ever spotted. Did you notice that Lisa’s saxophone solo is also different in every single credit sequence?
The first subversion appears in the very first second — when the title appears through the clouds, for one second, you’re looking at the words “the Simps.” Translation: These are simpletons, idiots, doofuses to the core, and you shouldn’t take anything that follows too seriously.
Reiss has spent decades trying to refute any attempts to see deeper meaning in The Simpsons, whether from academics or fans.
He has a point: For example, there’s acres of discourse on how Homer somehow ties into the writings of the ancient Greek poet, whereas the truth is that Groening just named the character after his own dad Homer in the five minutes he had to figure out his animation pitch to The Tracy Ullman Show in 1988. (The rest of Groening’s own nuclear family? His grandpa Abe; his mom Marge, nee Wiggum; his sisters Lisa, Maggie, and Patty and his brother … Mark.)
But with this approach comes a certain narrow-mindedness. Just because there is no deeper meaning to Reiss and his fellow writers (who are overwhelmingly white and male), doesn’t mean there aren’t some deeper meanings imposed by the more diverse culture at large.
Which brings us to Apu.
Reiss deserves a modicum of credit for at least addressing the Apu controversy in Springfield Confidential. Unfortunately, he does so in just two pages, and it’s rather dismissive. He calls The Problem With Apu a “nasty little documentary.” Hearing that Indian kids are taunted with the name, he responds “that’s not racism, that’s just saying kids are dicks.”
While admitting that Springfield’s Kwik-E-Mart clerk is “an unflattering stereotype,” he sees no difference between Apu and other unflattering stereotypes like Grandpa Simpson or the “pure cliche” of Groundskeeper Willie.
The difference, that there’s not a lot of racism directed towards Scottish people in America, doesn’t seem to occur to Reiss. His main problem in the whole controversy appears to be the fact that Hank Azaria is reluctant to play the character again. “Maybe after three decades,” he writes wistfully, “time has run out for Apu.”
It isn’t Reiss’ style to dwell too thoughtfully on a subject. It is his style to skewer it, and everything in sight, in every possible direction, with humor in the style of the Harvard Lampoon, of which he is an alum. At times, from a 2018 perspective, this can descend into mere dad jokes, with all the good and bad implications of that phrase.
By the end of the book, you may find there’s a certain vaudevillian staleness to his routine — and to that of the Simpsons itself, which is such a safe and known commodity these days that it hardly rattles any kind of establishment.
The show may be fully staffed by left-wing writers poking endless fun at corporate parent Fox, but Rupert Murdoch doesn’t care. It’s made him hundreds of millions of dollars, and he’s quite happy to appear as a guest star to show what a good sport he is.
You could even argue that the show was ahead of the curve in normalizing the Trump presidency, long before we even suspected it was going to be a thing.
At the same time, you may also have a newfound respect for the Simpsons writing room. These guys (and the too-slowly increasing number of girls they allow in the club) work their butts off for up to twelve hours every weekday, with only a week or two off a year.
It’s a labor of love, even if that love is well compensated. But not as well-compensated as it was: Everyone on the show took a voluntary pay cut in 2011 so Fox would keep paying the outsize budget. The cast members together earned $2 million per show, and “after two decades of incremental raises, even our janitor was pulling down $700,000,” Reiss explains.
As for how long the show is going to be around? Reiss has heard that question before a lot, and it’s one of the rare things that makes him bristle. “Stop asking,” he writes. “It’s rude. It’s like saying ‘grandma, when are you going to die?’ She doesn’t know, and she doesn’t want to think about it.”
That said, Reiss and his fellow writers have had multiple plans for a final episode kicking around for years. If the ratings slip further in the 30th season, or advertisers jump ship, or Murdoch or his kids have a cow and shoot their cash cow in the head, they’re ready. Yet in the era where Arrested Development lives on for at least two seasons after it stopped being funny, that doesn’t have to be the end either. “Even if the day comes that Fox cancels us, there’s the inevitable pickup by Netflix,” Reiss writes. In the coda to the book, he adds:
“Why does the show endure? Because it’s based on two fundamental principles: family and folly … there will always be fresh reasons for the good people of Springfield to form an ugly mob.
“When will The Simpsons end? The day people all over the world start treating each other with love, respect and intelligence.
“I hope that day never comes.”